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Bad Faith and the Buddha

The reclining Buddha at Bodhi Tataung (Wikimedia Commons)

“People search for goodness and try to throw away evil, but they don’t study that which is neither good nor evil.” Ajahn Chah What is bad faith? Many would say that its key feature is a certain kind of self-deception, specifically a self-deception that limits one’s freedom. As Neel Burton has put it, bad faith is “the habit that people have of deceiving themselves into thinking that they do not have the freedom to make choices for fear of the potential consequences of making a choice.”

According to this model, a paradigm example of someone in bad faith might be someone who has lost his religious faith but who tries to convince himself that he in fact remains a person of faith out of fear of the consequences of truly acknowledging the loss and what it may entail. Bad faith, in short, is something like the act of pretending to oneself that one does not have the freedom to make certain choices. And this kind of idea is, of course, most closely associated with Jean-Paul Sartre. My problem with this kind of picture of bad faith is that it isn’t very interesting. Given that Sartre builds so much of the analysis in his masterpiece Being and Nothingness (B&N from now on) around this concept, surely it must have to do with more than semi-willed forms of self-deception. Take, for example, the person of faith discussed above. If, in a moment of resolution, he decides to abandon his faith, faces the consequences of this, and then follows his heart and becomes a full-blooded Marxist, can we say that this person is now an authentic being freed from the shackles of bad faith? Surely the move from bad faith to authenticity cannot be as simple as “following your heart” (as if B&N is simply an elaborate precursor to Susan Jeffers’ bestselling Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway)? For example, it is widely acknowledged that the disruption of faith in absolute truths of a religious kind is frequently replaced by new non-religious absolutes, as captured by George Steiner: Those great movements [e.g. Marxism, Psychoanalysis], those great gestures of imagination, which have tried to replace religion in the West, and Christianity in particular, are very much like the churches, like the theology, they want to replace. And perhaps we would say that in any great struggle one begins to become like one’s opponents. Were our Marxist to have another change of heart and suddenly become, say, a Taoist, would we see this as yet another example of the dynamics of bad faith being undermined by someone taking ownership of their freedom to make choices? That this kind of channel-hopping approach to our belief systems is somewhat dubious is summed up by the French novelist Michel Houellebecq when discussing his mother’s spiritual journey: [I]n the space of a few years, I watched this woman convert from communist to Hindu and then Muslim (not counting some minor Gurdjieff-style bullshit); but even so, I got a shock ... to hear that she now refers to herself as an “orthodox Christian.”

If, then, the kind of picture of bad faith painted by Burton and many other mainstream commentators is rather flimsy and insubstantial, what would a better understanding of bad faith – one more in line with Sartre’s own philosophical analysis – look like?

To set the scene, let’s turn to evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright’s wonderful book Why Buddhism is True. Although the book is a couple of years old now and has been reviewed extensively, I felt drawn to review it for this issue as some of the ideas it raises tie in with the theme of this issue, as well as the previous two issues on “Identities” and “Us and Them”. I was also intrigued by the crossover appeal that the book has had amongst philosophers, with Nigel Warburton, for example, listing it as amongst his favourite philosophy books of 2017.

Although, for the most part, Why Buddhism is True is more a work of popular science than philosophy, there are fascinating empirically-informed theoretical explorations of the nature of the self, the nature of reason and the passions, as well as metaphysical speculations about the fundamental nature of reality. For this review, however, I will focus on a couple of chapters in the middle of the book that discuss Buddhist understandings of essence. Wright’s insightful exploration of our “natural” tendency towards essentialism illuminates what I take to be the core message of Sartre’s analysis of bad faith, to which we will return later.

At the heart of Wright’s argument is that perception is always imbued with feeling, and that part of the role of having feelings about things is to make judgements about them. In a sense, for Wright, feelings just are judgements. And judgements play a central role in our habit of attributing inner essences to things. As Wright puts it, we infuse things “with affectively charged essences.” Wright contrasts our essentialist evolutionary inheritance with the Buddhist idea of emptiness in which “things don’t have distinct essences that set them apart from each other” and in which items in the world “don’t project independent identities” so forcefully, with the result that “there’s a continuity of things.”

As we well know, the full force of our essentialist tendencies comes out when we attribute essence to other human beings, and Wright draws upon extensive research in the social sciences to explore our “specialized mental machinery for sizing people up and then assigning them an essence.” One classic finding in the field is that when explaining the behaviour of others we tend to underestimate the role of situational factors and overestimate the role of dispositional factors, a finding termed the “fundamental attribution error”. As Wright concludes, “we’re biased in favour of essence.” The Buddhist monk Ajahn Sucitto captures this dynamic well in his discussion of the ways in which we stretch “an event into an entity”:

If I believe he or she always is, or always should be, a certain way, I fix a sensitive, changing, affective mind into a stereotyped object called a person... Through such views we project irritation, adoration or neediness and make others into the heroes and villains of our lives. Now these projections may have some truth in them, but that truth is probably much more specific. “He’s an idiot” might mean something like, “I notice that his way of chairing the meeting yesterday didn’t bring the results I’d wish for.” The falsehood is that a piece of behaviour has been made into a three-dimensional person and cast in stone... If I believe in this creation, it will affect the way I relate to that person, and the way I talk about them; which means I help and participate in the creation of these caricatures, demons and angels. And to do that limits my responsiveness and our freedom.

The chapters on essence constitute the heart of Wright’s book as he notes early on that “[m]ore and more, it seems, groups of people define their identity in terms of sharp opposition to other groups of people”, and that he considers tribalism to be “the biggest problem of our time”. In fact, it was seeing himself as a “walking embodiment of what I consider to be the biggest problem facing humanity” that precipitated his experiments with Buddhist meditation.

Photo of Jean-Paul Sartre

To return to Sartre, we can see his idea of bad faith as fundamentally concerned with the problem of essences, of which the self-deception element that has such mainstream popularity is a derivative element. In his novel Nausea, Sartre is dealing primarily with the issue of essence in relation to non-human objects. If mystical experiences of enlightenment are often characterised by ecstatic feelings of unity and identity with God, Nature, the Cosmos etc., then it would be fair to characterise the revelation experienced by Roquentin, the narrator in Nausea, as a “negative enlightenment”, as indeed Gabriel Marcel does. We find Roquentin engaged in a battle against the dissolution of the essences of the objects that surround him: “As long as I could fix objects nothing would happen: I looked at as many as I could, pavements, houses, gas lamps; my eyes went rapidly from one to the other to catch them out and stop them in the middle of their metamorphosis... I tried to reduce them to their everyday appearance by the power of my gaze.” And yet as the Nausea takes hold, Roquentin’s ability to keep the discrete essences of objects in place breaks down: “Things have broken free from their names... I am in the midst of Things, which cannot be given names.” The ways in which language functions to create essence, diversity, individuality or abstract categories in accordance with human needs and purposes is revealed to Roquentin in this moment of “horrible ecstasy”. The sense of necessity or an independent order of things created through language dissolves, and all that is left are “soft, monstrous masses, in disorder – naked, with a frightening, obscene nakedness”. As David E. Cooper puts it, Roquentin’s Nausea emerges from a genuine embrace of the thought that “our language is arbitrary, something without a grip on an independent, determinate order of things”. And yet at the same time this experience is understood by Roquentin to be a revelation: “And suddenly, all at once, the veil is torn away, I have understood, I have seen.” With this revelation, the subject-object binary that allows discrete essences to emerge breaks down: “I was the root of the chestnut tree. Or rather I was all consciousness of its existence. Still detached from it – since I was conscious of it – and yet lost in it, nothing but it.”

Fast forward five years to Being and Nothingness, and we find Sartre attempting to formulate the revelatory insights of Nausea into a philosophical system. Additionally, we find that his main focus of interest has moved from inanimate objects (such as tree roots) to human beings. Jonathan Webber is correct to suggest that B&N is both a work of ontology and of psychoanalysis. If the Buddha said, “I teach suffering, and the end of suffering”, the Sartre of B&N teaches bad faith, and the end of bad faith. For Sartre, structures of bad faith are not optional; rather, in a kind of secularized version of the myth of the fall, he notes that bad faith is “essential to human reality”. While Wright is interested in the genesis of bad faith in the structures of human biology, Sartre, as a phenomenologist, focuses more on the ways in which bad faith is rooted in the dynamics of the social world – hence his seemingly pessimistic view of human relations, summed up by the famous line: “Conflict is the original meaning of being-for-others.” For if I can be an object before the other, it becomes vitally important to retain my status as subject at the expense of the other. Thus two consciousnesses with no fixed essence battle to subdue the other consciousness into a sense of essence and solidification. As Sartre puts it, the look of the Other is “the solidification and alienation of my own possibilities”; the look of the Other is “my transcendence transcended”. David E. Cooper captures this social dynamic beautifully: If others are objects for me, I am an object for them – and hence, via the prism they provide for self-understanding, an object for myself as well... I receive back from others the objectifying conception I form of them... Through treating others as alien, I become alienated from myself, and my freedom becomes an oppressed freedom through my effective denial of others’ freedom. This is what Sartre meant by saying that “in oppression, the oppressor oppresses himself.” To bring some of these ideas into a contemporary context, let’s turn to the area of identity politics. Three widely discussed critiques of identity politics are that: 1) it is a distraction from larger issues such as capitalist socio-economic structures, 2) it leads to fragmentation into lots of small identity groups which serves to undermine solidarity, and 3) it leads to conflict as the various fragmented groups start turning against each other (as is currently happening within feminism in relation to the trans issue, to take one prominent example). What is crucial here is that the options are generally related to the level of one’s identification, rather than the very process of identification itself which is Sartre’s focus in B&N. He explores a very simple phenomenological insight. Imagine that you are looking at a cup. If there was only the perception of the cup, there would be no freedom. You would be no different from an animal. But humans, with their refined form of consciousness known as self-consciousness, are able to oscillate between two realms: (1) the cup, and (2) the cup plus their own self-conscious awareness of looking at the cup, i.e. two separate intentional objects within consciousness. For Sartre, this capacity to separate our consciousness from its objects (to reside in nothingness rather than being) was the key to our freedom. As a result, he would surely dismiss much contemporary identity talk as plain old bad faith. For Sartre, we lack the very essences around which social identities construct themselves; when we philosophize we detach ourselves from these socially constructed carapaces. Seen in this light, the philosophical sin par excellence is to mistake the variables of our social identities for essential features of who we are.

So, Sartre, we can be sure, would be opposed to identity politics, at least philosophically. But what, if anything, can he offer as an alternative? Certainly the kind of mystical disintegration of essences described in Nausea is not a very viable alternative. And if he were to say to those engaged in identity politics that they are acting in bad faith because they are too focused on their identities which are themselves reificatory and distortive mechanisms rooted in bad faith, he opens himself up to the quite reasonable charge levelled against him by Amia Srinivasan in this context:

It’s easy for someone in a dominant position (like a rich white man such as Sartre) to think of himself as purely free and unconstrained by society, whereas someone like [Simone de] Beauvoir who – although privileged in many ways – was shackled by her gender will always include in her account a theory of social constraint.

Yet when we consider how Sartre secures his radical vision of freedom as the ever-present ability to negate any positive content of consciousness, we can see why Srinivasan’s critique would cut no ice with him. And this serves to highlight the absolute impossibility of deriving any kind of normative ethics or politics from B&N. It is a metaphysical picture entirely purified of any social contaminant. As Martin Jay has put it, for Sartre “true consciousness was pure translucence, unburdened by positivity”.

Where I think Sartre’s insights may be more fruitfully utilized is in relation to the process of dialogue itself. In his discussion of the Japanese Kyoto School, Bret W. Davis notes that in addition to the relation between the individual and society, the Kyoto School understood there to be a relation between the individual, society, and a universal “place” which Davis terms “the place of absolute nothingness.” As he puts it, for the Kyoto School individuals are never “free-floating atoms wholly unencumbered by the cultural contexts in which they find themselves; but neither are they ever wholly determined by these contexts.” The importance of this for contemporary areas of fierce dispute, e.g. identity politics, is that this recognition that we have “nothing in common” acts as a shared universal framework within which more contested local issues can be discussed. As Davis concludes, “In dialogue,... it is only through mutually bowing down to the silence between us that we can begin to hear what the other has to say.”

To acknowledge that we share “nothing” in common may not sound like much; in fact, it may sound like one of the most ludicrously naive suggestions imaginable for facilitating increased social harmony, but it is in fact the dominant thread running through Why Buddhism is True and Sartre’s early work, so we should not simply dismiss it out of hand.

Photo of Nishida Kitaro

To see why, let’s return to identity politics. As I was writing this, I remembered a fascinating 2016 article I had read in the New Yorker called “The Big Uneasy” about the American liberal arts college Oberlin. The irony pervading the article is that the same students who say things like “we’re the generation that’s trying to incorporate everybody” appear at the same to be unable to tolerate anybody who doesn’t agree with them, with one student saying: “I do think that there’s something to be said about exposing yourself to ideas other than your own, but I’ve had enough of that after my fifth year.” What we find happening within the Oberlin student activist movement is both an exaggerated and yet unsettlingly prophetic example of the consequences of an age when what the Kyoto School philosopher Nishida Kitarō calls “the universal of nothingness” has been eclipsed, and all we are left with are the “universals of being”. A total breakdown of civilised discourse is the potential end result of such a trajectory, for when we lose sight of the totality of reality (or “the universal of nothingness”), what we discover is that within the “universals of being” the potential for further division is literally limitless. As Justin E.H. Smith puts it in Irrationality, we increasingly, and especially in an online context, operate according to “a social ontology that subdivides humanity into fundamentally discrete kinds, where whatever is characteristic of another kind of human being is by definition alien, and where there is virtually no recognition of any broader genus of humanity in which the apparent alienness of another subgroup of human beings is resolved.” However abstract and de-politicized the idea of nothingness is, we can at least conclude that it may be a sorely missed release valve in a system chronically overloaded with being.

Let’s return to Robert Wright and Buddhism. The essence of Buddhist meditation, as many will know, is to learn to avoid attaching to and taking ownership over the contents of our consciousness, e.g. our thoughts, desires, beliefs, opinions etc. To put it bluntly, in appropriating elements of nature as “mine” we are little more than common thieves; by coming to an intimate understanding of this thieving process that our minds are habitually conditioned to engage in, we can eventually learn to relate in a non-grasping manner to all the contents of our consciousness, both those that we like and those that we don’t. We let go of notions of good and evil, and learn to study that which is neither good nor evil, that which lies beyond essence, that which simply is, independent of our interests, biases, judgements, and needs. It is about aspiring as much as humanly possible to Thomas Nagel’s famed “view from nowhere” which Wright sums up as “the view that carries none of my selfish biases, or yours, and that in a certain sense isn’t even a particularly human perspective, or the perspective of any other species.” However you wish to interpret this aspiration, what Wright is basically advocating is a rejection of various levels of cognitive bias generated through our evolutionary history, from the sense that I am special (egocentrism) to the sense that my group is special (tribalism) to the sense that my species is special (human exceptionalism). These kinds of thoughts are increasingly commonplace post-Darwin, Freud, Singer etc. The problem, as Wright frequently acknowledges, is that from the perspective of our evolutionary history, these biases are perfectly rational, and this fact severely limits the efficacy of debunking them using the latest logical arguments and empirical findings, not least because, as we well know, there are a whole Swiss Army knife’s worth of cognitive biases available to ward off the impact of undesirable arguments and scientific findings, aka “alternative facts”. Feeling, as Wright argues, is the ultimate arbiter in such matters, so the key question relates to how our rationalist discourses trickle down and generate an affective response. It is in this affective domain, Wright argues, that the truths of Buddhism make themselves felt most profoundly. As Nietzsche put it, we “have to learn to think differently – in order at last, perhaps very late on, to attain even more: to feel differently.” Anthony Morgan lives in Newcastle upon Tyne where he runs Bigg Books and edits The Philosopher.


From The Philosopher, vol. 107, no. 4 ('This Life'). Read more articles from The Philosopher, purchase this issue or become a subscriber.


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